The nominations of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden as vice presidential contenders immediately triggered a guessing game about their Secret Service codenames.
Palin is codenamed Denali, and her husband Todd is codenamed Driller. Biden is codenamed Celtic, and Biden’s wife Jill is codenamed Capri. As for the presidential candidates themselves, John McCain is codenamed Phoenix, and his wife Cindy is Parasol. Barack Obama is Renegade, while his wife Michelle is Renaissance.
But protecting the candidates is no game — it comes with the territory that an agent may have to take a bullet for the president or a candidate.
The actual instruction to Secret Service trainees is a little more complicated. “What we are trained to do as shift agents is to cover and evacuate if there is an attack,” an agent says. “We form a human shield around the protectee and get him out of the danger area to a safer location. If an agent is shot during the evacuation, then that is something that is expected. We rely on our layers of security to handle the attacker while the inside shift’s main function is to get the heck out of Dodge.”
The idea is to never allow an attack to happen in the first place. The key to that is the Secret Service’s James J. Rowley Training Center in Laurel, Md.
On a recent visit, the surrounding forest muffled the gunfire, the squealing wheels, and the explosions that are the sounds of training Secret Service agents and Uniformed Division officers.
Like many of the buildings on this 440-acre spread, the center itself is named for a former director. Rowley headed the Secret Service when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he spearheaded many changes after the tragedy.
The main classroom building, made of stone with a green roof, looks like it was lifted from a community college and dropped here. The building was named for Lewis C. Merletti, another former Secret Service director, who now heads security for the Cleveland Browns.
While most of the photos on the walls at headquarters downtown tell of sunny days, triumphant moments, and protectees well protected, the photos here in the Merletti Building tell of the underside, the hard work of processing evidence, and the dark side, the failures and poignant reminders. There are photos from the JFK assassination and an overhead of President McKinley’s funeral procession in 1901. That’s the year Congress informally asked the Secret Service to protect presidents . . . a little late.
Along one wall, every graduating class has its class photo, going back to the start of formalized special agent training in the 1950s. Back then, they wore fedoras. The photos proceed to the '60s, when agents had preppie hair, through the big-hair days of the '70s, to the “normal” looking agents of today.
Here, new agents receive a total of 16 weeks of training, combined with another 12 1/2 weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) at Glynco, Ga. Each year, the training center graduates seven to 11 classes of 24 Secret Service and Uniformed Division recruits. Even though the training center is in Laurel, agents refer to it as Beltsville, which is actually the town next door.
Most of the training center’s roads have names appropriate to the task at hand — Firearms Road, Range Road, Action Road, and Perimeter Road. Nothing called "Ambush Road," but there is always an ambush in the works.
At what the Secret Service calls Hogan’s Alley — not to be confused with the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley at its Quantico, Va., training academy — a body is lying in the middle of the road. Members of the Uniformed Division sit in a small grandstand watching down the street as four UD officers in BDUs, battle dress uniforms, clear the buildings and sort out how to take the bad guys down.
Except for a two-story house and a soft drink machine, the block-long village is like a Hollywood set, with the facades of a hardware store, hotel, restaurant, bar, and bank, and real cars parked in front. Suddenly the body comes to life, gets up and walks away, signaling the end of the scenario.
Instructors play the roles of hostage, baddies, and bodies. The retired head of the Prince George’s County SWAT team runs the training here along with other special ops experts. They talk about the big picture, what agents have encountered in assassination attempts, as well as the details, such as how to get small behind a trash can.
Most important, when agents hear gunshots, they are trained to respond rather than flinch — to cover a protectee and relocate him. But a sign says this is a Simulated Attack Area and warns, “No live weapons beyond this point.”
Narrating one of the scenarios, Bobbie McDonald, assistant to the special agent in charge of training, explains to me, “What we’re viewing is how they come upon the problem, how they alert about the problem, how they alert their partner, how they react to the situation.
"Did they take cover? Did they draw their weapon in an appropriate fashion and at an appropriate time? Did they shoot when they should have? Was it what we would call a good shoot, versus a bad shoot?”
In another section of the tactical village, a black van slowly drives past, packed with counter-assault team (CAT) members doing in-service training. Wearing black “unis,” rifles at the ready, they watch out the van’s windows, scowling behind their sunglasses.
Down the road, a smoke bomb goes off near a motorcade. The CAT team jumps out to deal with whatever they find — a motorcade ambush, a suicide bomber, a shooter. Perhaps the explosion is meant as a distraction from the real threat. The team leader sees something in the woods, a sniper hiding behind a tree.
Sniper subdued, the instructor says “the problem” has been dealt with. The team hustles back into the van. The motorcade reassembles and drives off to continue around campus where more scenarios are waiting.
Near another part of the tactical village is a White House gate with a kiosk where the occasional trapped bird can be found fluttering in exhaustion at all the windows. Replicas of the Uniformed Division’s White House kiosks, those familiar white houses with pointed roofs, dot the campus.
A scenario staged at one of these guard houses could be dealing with a “gate caller” about to jump the fence. This part of the tactical town is two blocks long with the same lettered and numbered streets as downtown Washington near the White House. The buildings here are not back-lot facades but heavier duty, including an eight-story repelling tower for counter snipers’ practice shots.
Here, trainees work rope line scenarios where someone plays the protectee. Trainees interview the subject in the lockup room. The subject is usually a contracted role player — an actor or a retired police officer. Meanwhile, outside there are “instant action drills” where motorcades are ambushed, people fire guns from windows, and things blow up.
Many of the field practical exercises begin at the “airport,” where air traffic is always grounded. Permanently stuck on the tarmac is Air Force One-Half, a mockup of the front half of the presidential plane, including the presidential seal and gangway. Next to it in similar unflyable condition is Marine One-Half, the center’s version of the president’s Marine One helicopter.
At the protective operations driving course, the regular students get about twenty-four hours of training in driving techniques. If they are assigned to drive in a detail, they receive an additional 40 hours of training.
High-Speed Driving Training
The giant parking lot is like the driver obstacle course from TV commercials or reality shows. Here they use Dodge Chargers — high-powered, high energy vehicles — to speed out of the kill zone. As a countermeasure, they learn to do the J-turn, making a perfect 180-degree turn at high speed by going into reverse, jerking the wheel to right or left, and shifting into drive.
They learn to negotiate serpentine courses, weaving around road objects and crashing through barriers, roadblocks, and other cars. If a protectee’s car is disabled, they learn to push it through turns and obstacles with their own vehicle. When backing up, agents are trained not to turn around to look out the rear window but to look at side view mirrors.
Besides physical training, agents get eight to 12 hours of swimming instruction, including escaping from a submerged helicopter. For this, the training center uses the dunker, which is meant to simulate what would happen if a helicopter went down and an agent, strapped into his seat, was on it.
In fact, that happened back in 1973, when Agent J. Clifford Dietrich died while on assignment with President Nixon. Dietrich drowned when he was unable to extricate himself from a Marine One helicopter that crashed into the water near Grand Cay Island in the Bahamas.
At several indoor and outdoor firing ranges, trainees and Secret Service agents doing periodic requalification shoot handguns, shotguns, and automatic weapons. Out of view, from behind bullet-proof glass, a voice issues commands over a PA. “Hot reload all the remaining slug rounds from the stock and one from your pocket . . . Shooter will continue one line of rifle slug in four seconds . . .” A barrage of bullets flies from six stations.
As they are riddled with bullets, the targets spin in place.
“Everything we teach out here, we hope we never have to do,” McDonald says.
If it comes down to taking a bullet, “You did something wrong,” says an agent. “And if that happens, I don’t think it’s something you’re going to think about before you do it. It’s just basically you’re going to try to get the man out of the way, and if you take some rounds, so be it. But the whole goal is for both of you to get out of there without a scratch.”
Pamela Kessler contributed to this article.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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